Protests are emerging in the Philippine against ultra-hardline President Rodrigo Duterte‘s declaration of martial law in the southern island of Mindanao last month. Over 100 former and current lawmakers, religious leaders and activists gathered in Manila for an interfaith rally on Sunday, the Philippines’ Independence Day, demanding an end to the official suspension of basic democratic rights in Mindanao.
“A regime that trades Filipinos’ human rights for vague, ever-moving law and order goals can only add fuel to armed rebellions and set back efforts to address the roots of the conflict,” the group’s statement said. “It is the poor that bear the brunt of these wars. It is the poor that are killed. It is their rights that are violated. It is their communities that are subject to aerial bombings and abuses during military and police operations.”
The May 23 martial law declaration—to last 60 days, with potential for renewal—is ostensibly in response to an ISIS-linked terrorist group. But rights advocates fear it gives Duterte’s security forces an even freer hand in his murderous war on low-level drug dealers and users—said to have already claimed 7,000 lives since he was inaugurated last June.
The signatories also called for the halt of aerial bombings of Marawi City in Mindanao, currently under siege by the ISIS-inspired “Maute Group.” Duterte is now claiming that the head of the Islamic State in the Middle East, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had instructed Maute commander Isnilon Hapilon to establish a base for ISIS in the Philippines.
More than 200 have been killed in the battle for Marawi, while over 230,000 residents have fled the city since the fighting began. And the U.S. may be involved in the fighting.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila told Reuters on June 10 that Pentagon military advisors are on the scene in Marawi. However, a Philippine military spokesman later said of the U.S. forces: “They are not fighting. They are just providing technical support.”
Amid all this, ISIS seemingly opportunistically claimed responsibility for the June 3 armed attack on a Manila casino that left 37 people dead—but police say their investigation has found no evidence to support that claim. Even if the official theory of a robbery proves correct, it still points to a breakdown of order, despite (or because of) the atmosphere of terror.
Philippine opposition lawmakers have petitioned the country’s Supreme Court to overturn Duterte’s martial law imposition. And while the left opposition has, until now, been soft on Duterte as a “populist,” the leftist parties are now finally starting to break ranks. The socialist Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM) issued a statement strongly condemning the imposition of martial law.
Duterte initially won support from the left by pledging peace with the Philippines’ old communist insurgency, the New People’s Army (NPA). But earlier this year, after new clashes with NPA guerrillas—also in restive Mindanao—Duterte said his peace initiative was off.
Duterte’s penchant for rape jokes left some wondering if he was serious when he told his soldiers in Mindanao that he will back them up if they rape women while enforcing martial law.
“Fight, and I will pray for you, and I will answer for everything,” he said in a speech on May 28. “If you go down, I go down. I and I alone will be responsible… Just do your job. I will take care of the rest. I will go to jail for you. If you rape three, I will admit [to] it.”
And Duterte has explicitly threatened to expand martial law beyond Mindanao to the rest of the Philippines.
On May 24, he said: “If I think that the ISIS has already taken foothold also in Luzon, and terrorism is not really far behind, I might declare martial law throughout the country to protect the people.”
A final perverse twist is the finding by a U.S. National War College expert that Duterte’s focus on the drug war left the country exposed to the rising threat from Islamic State militants.
Security expert Zachary M. Abuza was quoted by the New York Times as saying Duterte’s government had largely been in denial about the strength of the ISIS network in Mindanao. Embarrassingly, the Times even quoted an open challenge from a clearly over-confident Duterte to the jihadists back in December.
“They said that they will go down upon Marawi to burn the place,” Duterte blurted. “And I said, ‘Go ahead, do it.'”
But the distinction between narco threat and the jihadist threat may not be entirely clear in the minds of Philippine military commanders. There is plenty of potential for a convergence of Duterte’s drug war and anti-terror campaign: the Islamist militants have been repeatedly accused of profiting off the Mindanao cannabis trade to fund their insurgency.